Czech media outlets, which in the past were owned mostly by foreigners, are now nearly entirely in the hands of local tycoons
An oligarchization of the market is taking place, with prominent “impure” editors having political ambitions and the goal of reaching stronger influence

A historic transition for the Czech media was concluded at the end of October with the announcement of the acquisition of the Cme multinational (Central European Media Enterprises) by the Czech group Ppf. Specifically, starting 2013, all the major publishing and television companies have changed owners and the Czech billionaires have become their new owners.

Economic investment or political influence

The Cme/Ppf operation, with a more than two billion US dollars’ worth, will be remembered as one of the most important ones of this year. It has obviously caused a certain uproar among media professionals despite being in the air for quite some time. The Ppf group belonging to Petr Kellner, the richest man in the country, gets its hands on a giant that manages television channels in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and clearly in Czech Republic as well, where Cme is led by TV Nova, the most popular national TV channel.

“We received the news with some concern”, declared the Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (Nfnz) which has been handling the matter for some time. “The past few years proved that this situation in which the most important entrepreneurs have also become owners of the main media, has undermined the trust in the freedom of press and put pressure on the journalists themselves”.

As explained by the director of the fund, Josef Šlerka, it is particularly concerning that the Ppf group is active, like many other new media bosses, in sectors strongly regulated by the state. Therefore, there is a real danger that publishers will use their means of communication to influence the public administration and the regulatory authorities.

Clearly, the Ppf denies every single second the political pressure in the acquisition of Cme. “We want to use the synergies between the creation of media contents and their distribution – declared Petr Kellner – our motivation is the development of the telecommunications and media sectors. The Cme company is well-functioning and we don’t foresee any hasty actions to be taken in its management”.

Therefore, the group would look for cooperation with another sector where it is highly active. On one hand, Ppf controls the main Czech telephone operator (O2) and the mobile network, and on the other hand, it has a strong image deficit in Czech Republic. This is shown very well by the case of the recent non-partnership between Charles University and the consumer credit company Home Credit, one of the main assets of Ppf. Kellner is accused of making money by providing expensive mortgages to less well-off people and of being highly active in Russia and China, by accepting the authoritarian regimes in the two countries.

On the other side, TV Nova and the entire Cme Group manage still to make interesting profits, even for those not interested in the political side of the transaction.

In any case, there are all the premises, considering even Kellner’s closeness to the former president Václav Klaus, that TV Nova becomes a sort of conservative information platform, a kind of Czech Fox News. Moreover, even today, the main private broadcaster has an editorial line closer to the positions of Miloš Zeman, and, partly, to the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. On the other side, these latter ones don’t lose any opportunity to lash out against public television and radio broadcasters.

The shield and the access card

The most problematic position is the one of Andrej Babiš. Not only his companies are active in sectors highly regulated by the state, but his commitment to politics raises suspicion that he might be using his owned media against the opposing parties and leaders. On the other hand, these doubts were confirmed in 2017 by the clamorous anonymous post on You Tube, of some interceptions where Babiš was talking about compromising material on his political opponents and how to publish it in one of his newspapers. His interlocutor was Marek Přibil, a columnist for MF Dnes, one of the best-selling newspapers in the country and part of the prime minister’s empire. The entire story vanished into thin air but it jeopardized the credibility of the newspapers in the Mafra group.

Babiš is certainly not a unique case: there are many Czech billionaires who bought a “newspaper”. The first one was the financier Zdeněk Bakala in 2008, when he acquired the publishing company Economia, which also includes the economic newspaper Hospodářské Noviny. Bakala, who has been trying for years to improve his own image by financing activities connected to the memory of the former president Václav Havel, is not exempt from problematic issues: firstly, due to the huge speculation connected to the purchase of the 41 thousand apartments belonging to Okd miners in Ostrava, a controversial story that would deserve an article on its own; secondly, the terrible management of the Okd coal mining company.

Most likely, there are others needing to rebuild their integrity through owned media like the senator and gambling magnate Ivo Valenta (owner of the sovereign portal Parlamentní listy) and the Czech-Slovak investment group Penta, whose image was roughly tarnished in the political corruption scandal in Slovakia, known as the Gorilla case. As clarified in an interview by one of Penta’s partners, Marek Dospiva, the editorial group Vltava-Labe-Press serves Penta as a “nuclear case and shield” against attacks from other press.

Then, there is the case of Daniel Křetinský, co-owner of Czech Media Invest in Czech Republic, which includes the best-selling newspaper in the country: Blesk. The young billionaire, also known as the owner of the football club Sparta Praga, became the ultimate protagonist of ascension in various French media, including the prestigious newspaper Le Monde. His attempt to acquire a major influence in the capital of the publishing company Le Monde, sparked a rebellion in the Parisian editorial office. Hundreds of French intellectuals also lined up to defend the free press against the intrusions of the Eastern oligarch. With the acquisition of the newspaper, not exactly in a thriving economic situation, the Czech billionaire – coming from the dirty world of coal as energy source – is trying to secure himself an entry ticket to the high international society. Eventually, the agreement between the editorial team and the two major partners, Xavier Niel and Mathieu Pigasse, blocked any escalation.

What is there to be done?

Compared to the 1990s, when the Czech press was in the hands of foreign investors and publishing groups, nowadays all the most relevant media in Czech Republic is in the hands of corrupt publishers, who have high interests in other economic areas. Certainly, the change of “nationality” hasn’t improved the situation. However, the transition has been completed and there is no major media group at the moment that could compete with the new owners. In reality, the only untainted pole is public radio and television. Private media journalists are facing a period of greater effort than ever to gain independence, questioned by intrusive ownership and greater fragility of the traditional media. Briefly, everything makes believe that the freedom of press is still an ongoing fight.

by Jakub Horňáček